Best Japanese Albums of 2016

As a mild disclaimer, I don’t have the widest taste in music in terms of genre, so saying this is a list of my favorite rock and pop albums of the year would have pretty much the same results. There were so many wonderful albums that came out this year, but the following thirteen are all ones that I’ve been drawn to and listened to closely and often. I don’t necessarily love every track of every record, but they are certainly all worth a listen from front to back, and I hope someone will take an interest in something new from reading this list. All albums had to be four tracks or longer to count for the list. I’ve arranged them in order, but lining up your favorites is such a difficult task and on any given day, I feel like the ranking could be quite different. Next year it probably wouldn’t look anything like it does now. The more you listen to music, the more your impressions change. But for today, this is how I feel.

13. Yabai T-Shirts-ya-san – We Love Tank-Top
ヤバイTシャツ屋さん – We love Tank-top

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This is energetic and fun. Pop punk with funny lyrics. The contrast between slightly shouty male vocals and the very clear, high female vocals really makes their songs stand out despite the relatively simple structure, and they have great harmonies. It’s a three piece but the recordings have double-tracked guitar or sometimes keyboard, so it’s a relatively full sound for punk.

Best Track Overall: Musen LAN bari benri (無線LANばり便利)
Best Track You Can Listen To: Atsumare! Party People (あつまれ! パーティーピーポー)

12. Fuyuu Suru Neko – CLUTCH GIRL
浮遊スル猫 – CLUTCH GIRL

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Another band with twin vocals: one a full, mature sound, the second a nasally, purposefully cute sound that have surprisingly good play against each other. Also a three piece band, the guitar is often simple but soaring with a harsh distortion tone behind the melodic vocal play. The bass is heavy on the effect pedals and the drums are simple but fitting. This album is their third album and the most realized of their attempts thus far, having a bit of a more mature sound and a balanced quality between the different tracks. It’s hard to pick a highlight because there are so many strong songs, and they’ve also branched out of their sound in an effective way with the dreamy “Lion.”

Best Track Overall: Shirimetsurestsu (支離滅裂)
Best Track You Can Listen To: Lalalila/Lion (ララリラ / ライオン)

11. Koresawa – JPOP
コレサワ ジエイポップ

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Koresawa is the ideal JPOP-style singer-songwriter for me. Her songs are straightforward and basic in structure, but they are all catchy and feature wonderful instrumentation, with a mix of acoustic and electric guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and extra percussion, well-mixed and well-performed by Koresawa herself and session musicians. Her voice certainly also trends toward the more nasally and cute singing often found in mainstream pop (one of the two archetypes, the other being strong powerhouse ballad singers), but she sings quite well. Her lyrics are always adorable, and this 4-track EP is probably her best effort to date with four songs that you could just let go on repeat.

Best Track Overall: Short Cut ni Akogarete (ショートカットに憧れて)
Best Track You Can Listen To: J-POP

10. Mikkai to Miminari – Utsukushii Gyakushuu
密会と耳鳴り – 美しい逆襲

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One of my favorites on the heavier end of alt rock since FLiP have gone on hiatus — a couple of their very early songs actually remind of me of FLiP quite a lot. They’ve since gone a different direction in their sound, but it’s heavy hitting and poppy, with impressive guitar leads and a very distinctive voice from singer Chako. The guitar is even more impressive live while Hase is doing highkicks… I’ve sometimes seen them compared to tricot, though I personally don’t see too much similarity (no changing time signatures and completely different guitar and vocal sounds). My favorite from the band is their first mini album, but their latest release (and first available in stores) is excellent and includes several rerecordings from previous CDs.

Best Rerecording: Kagefumi (影踏み)
Best New Song: Saitei!Kibunya!__Bokumestsu! (最低!気分屋!○○撲滅!)

9. Regal Lily – The Post
リーガルリリー – the Post

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Definitely one of the bands following in the footsteps of Chatmonchy, but Regal Lily easily breaks out of that paradigm with their unique style. Honoka’s slightly-out-out-tune, impassioned singing is wonderful and she makes liberal use of the chorus effect for her guitar (which is currently a Fender Mustang despite the single of this album being Rickenbacker). A strong indie character and some shoegazer influence, with quiet verses leading to huge choruses crashing down on you like a tidal wave with their ocean of sound. This CD is another first available-in-stores album and they seem well on their way to wider success.

Best Track: Rickenbacker (リッケンバッカー)

8. Gozen Sanji to Taikutsu – Seinen no Shiseikan
午前3時と退屈 – 成年の死生観

gozen-seinen

The first Gozen CD to have more than a couple tracks on it — it certainly feels like their first really complete work. So much time has passed since their last recording that you can really feel the progress they’ve made. The mixing is better and a lot of the songs are ones they’ve been playing live for over a year, so they’ve been polished quite a bit. The lead track (with a music video) is the first song written by the band’s new guitarist and sole male member, Hoshi. All the rest of the tracks are by vocal/keyboards Anisonin. It definitely feels different from the minor key haunting songs that Anisonin dreams up, yet still is not jarring from sound. Definitely a good overall CD that makes me excited to see what they’ll do next.

Best Track Overall: Ougon Jidai ni Timeslip (黄金時代にタイムスリップ)
Best Track You Can Listen To: Tokyo Dreamland (東京ドリームランド)

7. tricot – KABUKU EP

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This feels like a slightly more mature and slightly more experimental tricot. It’s not a large departure from their previous music, mathy alt rock with cleanly overdriven guitars, but definitely feels like they want to try some different ideas. This may also be the reason for singer Ikkyu’s solo project that started this year. With each track drummed by a different person, each song has a bit of a unique groove. As with most of tricot’s releases, there were some songs that I felt were much stronger than others, but still no bad songs. This is one of the earlier releases from this year to make this list, which speaks to its staying power. Read my earlier full review here.

Best Track: Setsuyakuka (節約家)

6. Hara From Hell – Minohodo
ハラフロムヘル – みのほど

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As always, it’s hard not to be captivated by the dramatic vocals of Tatejima Yoko. She sounds like a singer straight out of the 30s or someone performing in a musical, yet the band is playing rock/folk. You definitely won’t find this mix anywhere else, and is definitely a sound that’s not for everyone, but I think it’s completely captivating. Minohodo has several rerecordings, but the new songs are good, including the lead track “Pants Hill” — the live version of which I initially watched on YouTube and fell in love with the band over. They’ve changed one guitarist since their last music release, but with only a subtly different style, the music feels relatively the same to their last CD, Matryoshka-san.

Best Track: Pants Hill (パンツヒル)

5. THE HUNGRY RUGRAT – Te
THE HUNGRY RUGRAT – 手

hungry-rugrat-te

This was one of my biggest surprises of the year. I’d never heard of this band, as they mostly play locally in Hokkaido, but they were in the Tokyo area for a short tour and I happened to see them play at a show I was at to see another band. The sound is so strongly UK rock that if the lyrics were in English you might not even suspect it’s a Japanese band. The songs are short and punchy and completely satisfying.

Best Track Overall: Aitsu no Sei (アイツのせい)
Best Track You Can Listen To: Shikai wa Kurai (視界は暗い)

4. ayumi melody – Froh Flow

ayumi-froh

One of the most relaxing, sweet, and wonderful albums I’ve listened to all year. These folky numbers, with just singing, acoustic guitar, and piano, are truly beautiful and the lyrics are incredibly touching. This album is a testament to the power of simple music beautifully crafted. Read my earlier full review here.

Best Track Overall: Hikari no Tsubu (ひかりのつぶ)
Best Track You Can Listen To: Midori no Sheets (みどりのシーツ)

3. Yubisaki Nohaku – Full Range
指先ノハク – フルレンジ

yubi-full

Yubisaki Nohaku is a band that has been working hard for a long time for an indie band with no lineup changes — eight years — without much success but is finally starting to gain some momentum. This newest album is produced by former Chirinuruwowaka guitarist Sakamoto Natsuki. They had an internet commercial promotion with Pocari Sweat sports drink for their song “Festablue,” and in their last series of events performed with some big indie names including a twoman show with tricot. This album has a couple of weaker songs like “No.9,” but overall is fantastic. A 90s-rock-esque alternative sound with some distinctive sounds from lead guitarist Junko. They’ve abandoned the keyboard for the time being with Full Range in favor of two guitars for all tracks on the record. The album is tied up with my favorite song of the year, “Sou.”

Best Track: Sou (層)

2. Peroperoshiteyaritaiwazu – Localism no Yoake
ペロペロしてやりたいわズ。 – ローカリズムの夜明け

peropero-full

This is an interesting album for this list. I like all of the songs, yet nothing stands out strongly like “Sou” on Full Range. But the album, 10 tracks long, works so well as a complete piece that it forged its way all the way to #2 on my list. Funk-inspired pop rock with groovy basslines and funky lead guitar and interesting singing — often leaning more to talking than singing depending on the track. I found myself listening to Localism front to back for several days on end when it came out, and then even went back to re-listen to all of their old CDs too.

Best Track Overall: City Boy
Best Track You Can Listen To: Furico

1. Zekkei Kujira – Jidori
絶景クジラ – 自撮り

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Another release from earlier in the year that managed to stay in my mind this whole time. Jidori is the best Zekkei has ever been and is a perfect five tracks of pop-rock with a little edge, a little groove, and impressive, addictive singing. It’s a shame that bassist Uemaya is leaving the band in March. Hopefully they can find a good replacement and continue to put out amazing music. Read my earlier full review here.

Best Track: Saigo ni Ai wa Katsu (最後に愛は勝つ)

Best Japanese Music Videos of 2016

Polkadot Stingray – Telecaster Stripe

This is the perfect indie video. It’s not fancy but it’s super clean. And the most impressive thing is that band leader Shizuku (vocals/guitar/songwriting) directed and edited the whole thing.

COMezik – Imagination

Simple, powerful, beautiful, and featuring bass/vocal Lin’s amazing art.

Yabai T-Shirts-ya-san – Party People

This video is hilarious from one little (big?) gag. You can watch or read here for my post about it.

Okazaki Taiiku – Music Video

Music Video is a hilarious music video where Okazaki Taiiku sings about cliches for Japanese music videos while doing them in the music video. Music video. You get the most out of it if you understand Japanese, but the beginning segment goes something like:

Walking and singing while facing the camera
Suddenly the band members come in from the sides
Then suddenly cover the camera with your hand
And it cuts to a different location

FLiP – Rainbow

This FLiP video makes the list simply because this is their last song and it so well fits the song and the hopeful, uplifting tone they aimed to set their final show before their hiatus.

Best Albums Released Pre-2016 That I Listened to in 2016

I’m always looking for new music. When I find a new band, the majority of the time, they aren’t really a new band, they’re just new to me. This is a list of the best albums that I listened to for the first time this year, even though they were released sometime before. I’m planning on writing up a best albums of 2016 list as well, but we’ll start here. These are listed simply in the order I listened to them.

Regal Lily – Regal Lily

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When I first saw Regal Lily (リーガルリリー) last year, this eponymous first mini album had already gone out of print (some few months after it had been released). Earlier this year I borrowed it from a friend. It’s a great first effort, with two particularly moving tracks: 3. “Majo” (魔女), which has been rerecorded and released on their latest CD The Post, and 5. “Sakamichi no Tochuu de.” (坂道の途中で。 ).

cinema staff – Symmetoronica

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I finally picked up a cinema staff CD, having seen them at the Rock in Japan festival last year and been interested. This is a sold post-hardcore(?) 5-track mini with this lead track.

Peroperoshiteyaritaiwazu – Peroperoshiteyaritaiwa

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The pop! The funk! Peroperoshiteyaritaiwazu (ペロペロしてやりたいわズ) wins the award for longest band name. Every song on this is great and it’s followed up by an even better full length album released this year. “Bless you!” is probably my favorite track and “Highlight” (ハイライト) is a good example of a heavier song from them (there’s only this live version online).

Yuyun – Curtain Call

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This album. Is. So. Good. This would almost certainly have been my #1 album of 2015 if I had listened to it before making my list. 10 songs long and every song is great. But it’s better listened to as a whole. Cohesive yet there is variety in the tempo, tone, and intensity of the songs. Great use of vocals with all four singing. The singer/bassist used to be in Skirt no Naka, a band that I only found out about after the fact and which I would have killed to see live. I only got to see them a few times before they went on a hiatus (the “we don’t want to break up so we’re calling our break up a hiatus” kind) and it still makes me upset! “Hansuu”(はんすう) is my favorite track (live version linked). For a change of pace, the downtempo: “Gyuunyuu” (牛乳).

Mikkai to Miminari – Saijoukai kara, Sayounara

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Alt rock/hard rock that packs a poppy punch. Mikkai to Mimimari (密会と耳鳴り)’s first mini album is probably their best work to date with so much goodness packed into just five songs. The newer stuff is still quite good though. Check out “Disco” (ディスコ) with its pretty entertaining MV or “Kagefumi” (影踏み) (live).

Hitsuji Bungaku – BiRTH.epcfmfnbyukaanf4y

Even if this CD only had one track (it has four), it would be on the list, because “Haru” (春) is just that good. Hitsuji Bungaku (羊文学) means “sheep literature” and is one of my favorite band names. I saw them once in 2015, but wasn’t that drawn in at the time. “Haru” changed everything. Unfortunately, the bassist of the band has quit as of their last show of the year, held last week (I think to look for a job for after college in the upcoming job search season), and the future of Hitsuji Bungaku is unclear. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Moeka will at least continue solo music projects.

Yubisaki Nohaku – Sakana: Best Albums of 2015 #1

I think it will be little surprise to anyone who knows my music habits that this was my top album for the year. Yubisaki Nohaku are an amazing indie rock band that knock every song they write out of the park.

Yubisaki Nohaku – Sakana

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  1. Houkago (放課後)
  2.  Nanigashi (なにがし)
  3. Ge no owari (ゲノオワリ)
  4. Yukue iri (行方入り)
  5. Aiseki (相席)
  6. Dou shiyou ga nai koto (どうしようがないこと)
  7. 3DK

This is the first release from Yubisaki Nohaku available nation-wide, at Tower Records and online on Amazon. All their other releases have been venue-only, which is quite common for the indie scene in Japan. It’s also not a traditional mini album in the sense that only two of the six regular tracks (#7 is a bonus) are new songs. Houkago was on their first mini album, Yukue iri (link is the previous recording) and Dou shiyou ga nai koto (link is the previous recording) on their second, and Nanigashi on their most recent single. However, the older songs are re-recorded versions with finely tuned arrangements and great new, fuller sound. This album also spans an impressive range of song genres, with hard rock (1, 4), pop (2, 5), ballad (6), and post-rock (3), yet still manages to have a cohesive sound. And that is with two different song writers (guitarist and bassist).

The album title “Sakana” is a homophone with the word meaning fish, but in this case it is a different character meaning snacks that you have while drinking, hence the beer pouring from the moon on the cover. The art, featuring “Sakana-chan,” is drawn by guitarist Junko.

Yubisaki Nohaku have had a fair amount of growth in fan base over the past two years and I’m hoping they’ll continue to grow while I impatiently wait for more new music.

Standout tracks: Saying all of them would defeat the purpose, so with much internal deliberation I present the following three.

  • Houkago – This is the song that I first listened to by Yubisaki Nohaku, in a live recording on YouTube (no longer available). I decided within 30 seconds that I needed to see this band live. Amazing energy and decimating slap bass.
  • Nanigashi – Poppy, energetic, silly, but with an addictive chorus
  • Dou shiyou ga nai koto – Simple yet beautiful

Kuroki Nagisa – Jiyuuritsu: Best Albums of 2015 #2

Kuroki Nagisa – Jiyuuritsu

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  1. Koshi tantan to tantan to (虎視眈々と淡々と)
  2. Makura kotoba (枕詞)
  3. Daiyogen (大予言)
  4. Almond (アーモンド)
  5. 107
  6. Inochigake de hoshii mono hitotsu (命がけで欲しいものひとつ)
  7. Template (テンプレート)
  8. Kimi ga watashi wo dame ni suru (君が私をダメにする)
  9. Shiroya (白夜)

Kuroki Nagisa is a singer-song writer who started out in a band (also called Kuroki Nagisa). Their first and only album release was a self-titled 7-track mini album (although written 黒キ渚 instead of 黒木渚) in 2013. It’s great short pop and rock CD and has my absolute favorite track by her called Atashi no shinzou ageru, which translates to “I’ll give you my heart.” Except in Japanese, the words for heart like emotions (kokoro) and the organ (shinzou) are two separate words and Nagisa is going to give you her throbbing heart. It’s a great obsessive love song. After she went solo from the band, Nagisa released a full length album in 2014. Although it had a couple of really catchy numbers like Kakumei, there were a lot of boring filler songs and ballads and I was afraid her music career was going to continue to head in a direction that I wasn’t much in favor of (similar to Uchuu Mao, another band-turned-singer-songwriter whose amazing rock/pop music has gradually declined into nothing but boring pop numbers).

However, Jiyuuritsu not only renewed my faith in Nagisa but completely blew away all my expectations. It is beginning-to-end a thoroughly enjoyable album. It is still more leaning towards pop than her initial release, but there is a real rocking song on track 7 with Template. All the songs have a distinct Kuroki Nagisa flavor to them but each is refreshing in its own way and doesn’t give me that flat feeling that plagued her second album.

Standout tracks:

 

tricot – A N D: Best Albums of 2015 #3

There was a whole assortment of good music in Japan, but my favorite songs of the year were often from singles or were gems in otherwise less-impressive albums. Instead of a long list, I’ve decided to just post about my top three albums of the year. Each of these I’ve listened to over and over and they not only have some amazing stand-out songs but work as a whole; there isn’t a single track I’d skip when listening. This entry is for the third best of the year.

tricot – A N D

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  • Noradrenaline
  • Hashire (走れ)
  • E
  • Iro no nai suisou (色の無い水槽)
  • Kobe number (神戸ナンバー)
  • Kieru (消える)
  • Pai~n A N D ver. (ぱい~ん A N D ver.)
  • Shokutaku (食卓)
  • Niwa (庭)
  • CBG
  • QFF
  • Break

After the departure of their drummer Komaki in 2014, there were some doubts as to how the sound of tricot would pan out. His complex rhythm patterns seemed essential to their mathy rock sound. However, they went on to release the single Break in the summer of that year, overly symbolizing a break from their previous incarnation and the start of a new era for tricot. Originally, the band was just the three girls playing with support drumming, so this was actually a reversion back to earlier days. Break was a strong single, with an melancholic sound and slower tempo; it’s the kind of number that really grows on you the more you listen. The They solicited for videos of fans tearing paper on which they had written a word that they wanted to “break” (I’m in the video by the way!) Providing the drums on the single and for the vast majority of live shows after Komaki left was Miyoko Yamaguchi (Miyo) from Detroit7. Her main band isn’t currently active but she does support drumming for a variety of other indie artists.

The followed up Break with a second single, E, in the spring. The music video is a dizzying spinning view of three drum sets flashing between scenes of each of three members playing drums and their own instruments. E sounds more akin to the tracks from the previous album T H E, but with some novel drumming from BOBO, heavy on the tambourine.

They recorded the album with the help of five drummers. In addition to Miyo and Bobo mentioned above, Toshiki Hata (ex. Tokyo Jihen), Kousuke Wakiyama (tobaccojuice), and Muneomi Senju are featured. Finally, there is one track from a previous recording session with komaki. tricot had a live stream where they played one song with each of the five drummers, and all joined in during the breakdown in Niwa, which they uploaded on YouTube as well.

Overall, the album is a strong effort. It has some real memorable tracks, with a relatively wide range of sounds from the cool Kobe Number to the intense Kieru to the dramatic Break. That being said, I find myself liking their previous album T H E more overall. Along with the impressive songs on A N D, there are a number of forgettable tracks as well. Still, I am quite satisfied and looking forward to see what tricot brings for their next album. They’re already off to a great start with their new single Pork Ginger, which was one of my favorite music videos of the year.

Standout tracks: Niwa, Break, Kieru, Kobe Number

My Favorite Music Videos of 2015

These are all music videos that were enjoyable or memorable to me from the past year. Not necessarily my favorite songs (although I certainly like them all) and not necessarily the most impressive videos, but just what caught my attention. In no particular order:

Sheena Ringo (椎名林檎) – Nagaku Mijikai Matsuri (長く短い祭)

From the pop queen herself, a duet with Ukigumo with autotune done right and a disturbing video.

 

Yubisaki nohaku (指先ノハク) – Nanigashi (なにがし)

An extremely fun music video with a song of when communication just isn’t working right. One of my favorite songs of the year as well.

 

Milkyway (みるきーうぇい) – Shinitaku Naru Hodo Suki Datta (死にたくなるほど好きだった。)

A moving story music video and the sequel to this MV from last year. With a song called “I Loved You So Much I Want to Die,” Milkyway really has the best emo lyrics.

 

Chirinuruwowaka (チリヌルヲワカ) – Awoawo (アヲアヲ)

This video is really simply but I love how well it fits the chill song. It’s also always enjoyable to watch videos where you can actually see the musicians play.

 

A Month of Sundays – Shigatu no Tawagoto (四月のたわごと)

Another very simple music video that just fits the music perfectly. I love the vintage camera touch and this is just one of my very favorite songs of the year.

 

Lily Rose (リリーローズ) – I Know

Simple and sexy. Same singer as the above video.

 

Suiyoubi no Campanella (水曜日のカンパネラ) – Medusa (メデューサ)

It wouldn’t be a best MV list without at least one Suikan song. While it wasn’t their flashiest video of the year, it was the most charming.